Building Character: Susan Choi re-emerges with her second novel, American Woman
In many ways, Susan Choi’s life has been a series of unpremeditated choices. “I didn’t set out to bring my life into line with a writer’s life,” she says. “Although I was good at writing, I never considered it as a career. I flirted with any number of inappropriate career choices – film, art, being a professor. I didn’t do much of anything to turn myself into a professional writer.” As effortless as she makes it seem, Choi is today a critically acclaimed author.
Born in South Bend, Ind., to a Korean immigrant father and a Russian Jewish American mother, Choi spent her first eight years there, until she moved with her mother to Houston after a brief stint in Japan. There, she lived in a predominantly middle-class Jewish suburb – “I was a Jewish kid,” she says – and went to an arts high school until she headed to New Haven to study at Yale.
“I didn’t do a lot of research on schools. I just applied to good schools I had heard of,” she says. “Yale didn’t even have a major in creative writing, which was my idea of what I wanted to do, but I hadn’t even bothered to find that out before I applied.” After graduating with a degree in literature, Choi drifted for a while, moving to Chicago, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Nashville, and back to Houston in just 15 months. “I was wandering aimlessly with friends,” she laughs. “I was uniquely not worried about what I was going to do with my life.”
She applied to grad school by default (“It was always something people expected me to do,” she recalls) and found herself doing a double MFA/PhD program at Cornell, an option extended to only one candidate a year. She found that doing both was personally “not a viable option.” She finished the MFA, but dropped out of the PhD program, which set the rest of her young life in motion: “I ended up with a writing career by default.”
Like all the most promising writers, Choi headed to Manhattan, tried two “terrible jobs,” then got “a divine call” from The New Yorker. She spent the bulk of three years as a fact checker there, in between taking breaks to write her first novel, The Foreign Student, which debuted in the fall of 1998 to rave reviews.
Choi left her day job a few months later, although she returned to co-edit Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker with David Remnick. She continued to write and also teach, working on what would become her current novel, American Woman, which debuts next week.
Based loosely on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the story of American Woman centers on what Choi refers to as an “odd footnote” to the famous case – a young Japanese American woman found with Hearst who disappeared almost immediately from the headlines. In Choi’s memorable new novel, the lost “footnote” is born again as a renegade, idealist Japanese American woman with a historic past …[click here for more]